2 our of 3 Britons believe people are too easily offended by language use. Photo: Prospect composite

Free speech? New polling suggests Britain is "less PC" than Trump's America

2 out of 3 people believe others are too offended by language use, while nearly half say they're not allowed to say what they think about key issues
February 16, 2018

Arguments about “political correctness” have loomed large in the culture wars of the United States, which have defined American politics for the last generation, if not two. That has been especially so since the election of Donald Trump.

With the Democrats questioning whether they’ve alienated white working-class voters by indulging in “identity politics,” no one seems to have noticed that Trump himself—with his nostalgic pitch to ageing white men—is the greatest identity politician of the lot.

It has become commentariat cliché to suggest that Brexit has revealed a great gulf between the educated, urban, liberal elite that holds sway at Westminster, and a great mass of “left behind” voters out in the country. If the caricature holds, it sounds very much like a culture war in the making. But does it?

There has been reporting and social research to explore why some things that are not seen as a problem in the liberal big cities—most notably immigration—are regarded with deep concern in many of the small towns that broke heavily for “Leave.” But social science is only just starting to probe whether “political correctness” has itself become as inflammatory in the UK as it has in the US.

Maria Sobolewska of Manchester University ran an experiment on people’s attitudes towards the ethnic diversity of London. She conditioned a sub-sample of respondents with the thought that being positive about diversity was a “politically correct” attitude to hold. Voters who were primed in that way were somewhat less likely to be warm about the capital’s multiculturalism, suggesting that “PC” has some charge as an anti-liberal message.

Focus groups for the think tank Demos found that talk of PC reliably “incensed participants.” They talked of the country being run by too many “do-gooders,” of feeling unable to “stand up” and state their views plainly for fear of being judged, and of feeling like “they are standing on eggshells.”

These participants, however, were white and mostly over 55. What there has not been until now is any comprehensive, representative polling on “the war of the words,” a contrast with the US where right-wing think tanks endlessly poll on how “cramped by political correctness” many “ordinary Americans” feel.

Now Prospect, with the generous assistance of YouGov, is able to fill this gap.

Too easily offended?

We started with a question that the Pew Research Center has run in the US, to gauge whether PC turned out to be less of an issue in Britain than in America. Instead, we found the reverse. By two-to-one—67 per cent to 33 per cent—Britons believe “too many people are too easily offended these days over the language that others use,” as against the view that care with language is needed “to avoid offending people with different backgrounds.”

This lead for what some would call the “politically incorrect” position is actually considerably larger than the 20-point gap that Pew recorded with the identical question in the US, where the “people are too easily offended” position led by 59 to 39 per cent.

That was in 2016, the year Trump was elected, and fully 79 per cent of Republican voters then believed that people were offended too easily. But the overall American lead is not as large because Democrats leant heavily the other way. In Britain, Conservative voters look a lot like Republicans on this measure—79 per cent of Tories take the “too easily offended” line, as do 79 per cent of “Leavers.”

The twist is that, unlike in the US, majorities of generally more liberal groups are also on the “too easily offended” side—Labour voters (57 per cent) and “Remainers” (58 per cent). Anthony Wells of YouGov commented: “On this measure, at least, attitudes to political correctness are not nearly as clear a dividing line as it is in the US. US Democrats lean heavily in favour of the need for careful language, but the majority of British Labour voters think people are too easily offended.”

article body image

The relatively uniform support for the “politically incorrect” answer on this question applies across the age range too—70 per of under-25s think people are too easily offended. For older people, including pensioners, there is—if anything—more support for taking care with language. No sign, then, of generation snowflake here. And not yet much sign of a culture war, either.

On other questions, however, the outlines of a British culture war do begin to take shape, with people’s choice between “Remain” and “Leave” in the EU vote being the most telling dividing line. We asked voters what they preferred in a leader, and overall somewhat more (45 per cent) preferred “politicians who spoke bluntly, without worrying about who they offend,” against 38 per cent who prefer a leader who “spoke carefully” to avoid “unnecessarily offending people.”

In an age when the news is punctuated by outrage at Trumpian swipes at women, Mexicans and Muslims, this is a sobering reminder that for a very large proportion of voters—much larger than those who ever backed Nigel Farage’s Ukip—“speaking before you think” is politically preferable to being more considerate and cautious. Populist leaders will be encouraged by that.

article body image

More striking even than this overall result on the question of unvarnished leadership is the split between different parts of the population. The preference for the “plain speaker” leader is far higher among Conservative voters (62 per cent) than Labour supporters (33 per cent).

And indeed, whereas there is a 20-point lead for the leader who avoids unnecessary offence among EU Remainers (53-33), among Leavers, there is, by 38 points (62-24), a preference for a leader more in the Trumpian mould on this count.

Look at this leadership question by age, and we can now see very big splits: there are mirror image majorities for the “plain speaker” among pensioners, and for the leader who takes care not to offend among the under-25s. By education, too, there is now a marked split, with a 23-point lead for the “plain speaker” among those with less schooling, and a 20-point lead for the careful-speaking leader among the most-educated.

Finally, there is a marked gender gap. Women, who are often at the wrong end of the quips of “plain-speaking” politicians, favour a more careful speaker (42 to 39 per cent); men, however, prefer politicians who doesn’t pause to consider whether they offend, by 52 to 34 per cent.

More Leave-Remain divides

Similar divides show up on the question about whether important debates are being muzzled. Overall, a plurality of voters—48 per cent—judge “there are many important issues these days where people are simply not allowed to say what they think,” 13 points more than the 35 per cent who believe people are generally “free to discuss what they think.” That should worry liberals.

Again, however, there is a massive split in perception, across the EU referendum divide. By 49 to 39 per cent, Remainers are convinced that people are free to say what they think, but Leavers believe—by a crushing 60 to 26 margin—that there are important things that Britain can’t talk about.

Wells notes: “Despite Brexit voters winning the referendum and having a government committed to Brexit, they are more likely to think that people are not free to speak their mind on important issues. Their views have the political upper hand at the moment, yet it seems they still feel culturally embattled.”

Again, education has some bearing—a significant 51-32 majority of less-educated respondents feel debates are being closed down, while the educated voters are inclined to believe, albeit by a very modest 44-42 margin, that we’re all free to say what we think.

Finally, we asked voters what they thought about which sorts of people were more likely to be talked about in the media and in social settings “in a disrespectful or offensive way.” And on this test, there was a striking degree of consensus.

Britons see Muslims (named by 50 per cent) as the most likely to be spoken about disrespectfully, with gypsies and travellers second (43 per cent), transsexuals and transgender people third (27 per cent), followed by minority ethnic people (24 per cent).

article body image

This rough ranking holds across all social and political groups, with only slight variation; EU “Leave” voters were, for example, marginally less inclined to see Muslims as a vulnerable group.

Some have suggested political correctness shoots itself in the foot by privileging concern about the slights shown to minorities over that shown by other groups, such as poor whites. But among the voters, there was little concern about class snobbery. Only 6 per cent named working-class people as a group that gets treated with disdain, and only 2 per cent saw people who hadn’t been to university as being prone to contempt. And even among less-educated and working-class voters, these figures weren’t much higher.

In sum, Britain as a whole is not in a politically correct mood. The overall sense is that too much time is spent worrying about offence and language. There is an inclination, too, to believe that important debates are being shut down, and that “plain-speaker” leaders are to be preferred even if they offend. This general tilt towards “politically incorrect” positions becomes an avalanche among those that voted “Leave.”

Here, if we needed it, is yet more evidence of how profoundly David Cameron’s referendum has sown Britain with division.

Now read Afua Hirsch on why free speech isn't free